Treasure and heart | 16 October 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-15; Matthew 6:21

It’s a long and winding road from Jeremiah, through Jesus, to Jourdan Anderson’s 1865 letter to his old master, to the color coded map on the front of our bulletin, to the Black Manifesto, to Columbus, Ohio in the 21st century.  A long and winding road.  The letter and the map are both pieces that Adam brought in to our Exodus Bible Study class in the spring.  We were trying to make connections between the Hebrew’s exodus from slavery narrative and the African American experience.  These two pieces did that, with the bonus of bringing it home to Ohio soil.

Last Sunday’s sermon included the story of James Forman interrupting worship services at predominantly white churches throughout 1969, beginning with the influential Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York.  He did this to read from the recently written Black Manifesto which called for reparations for black Americans from white Christians and Jews.

One hundred years before this a formerly enslaved man named Jourdon Anderson, living in Dayton Ohio, wrote a private letter to his former master (included at the end of the sermon).  The old master had initiated the correspondence, as Jourdon acknowledges in the opening.  “Sir, I got your letter and was glad you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again.”  Jourdon goes on to highly qualify what he might mean by “glad.”  It seems that the former master still holds a place for Jourdon in his heart.  The feeling, it seems, is not mutual.  The formerly enslaved Jourdon would only be glad for a reunion if the old master has a change of heart.  And Jourdon is careful to outline just what a change of heart would look like.  He essentially asks that his old master give up all claims of masterhood, present, future, and, very importantly, past.  Treasure accumulated from the unpaid labor of Jourdon and his wife would be returned to them.  These fair wages would now serve as reparations.  Even though late in coming, they would be a sign that, in the words of Jourdon, “the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers in making us toil for you for generations without recompense.”

There are any number of teachings from the gospels that relate to what we’ve been talking about.  But I want to pick out one brief statement from Jesus as a way of following a thread through these different eras and stories in front of us.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  He makes a direct connection between treasure and heart, and I want to follow this thread of treasure and heart for a while.  It will be winding, but hopefully not too long.

For the ancients, the heart was the center of the being.    It was the home of physical warmth and energy.  It was also the seat of intelligence, of intention, and even sensation, perception.  The condition of the heart had moral overtones.  You think and sense and reason and aim with your heart.

These days our fascination has migrated about a foot and a half north to the brain as the center of the being, but our language is still peppered with these ideas about the heart.  A lovely and relatively new phrase that Brene Brown has popularized is whole-hearted.  Whole-hearted living involves things such as authenticity, vulnerability, gratitude, cultivating creativity.  Whole-hearted.

A key part of Jesus’ teaching is how he orders treasure and heart.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”   The order implies that the place where we put our treasure – our resources, our time, our relationships, our money – is the place our heart ends up.  In this arrangement, our heart follows rather than leads our treasure.

For where you put your money, there you mind will go.

For how you use your time, there your temperament will be formed.

When I think about how this has played out in my own life I think about how purchasing our first house elevated my awareness of the surrounding area — the Oakley neighborhood of Cincinnati, uncoincidentally on the same street as Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  All of a sudden, we were invested, and I felt my involvement and interests, and interest, and intelligence and intentions, shaped by that investment.  I could sense that happening in a way it hadn’t before.  Purchasing real estate is a big decision.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I also think about our girls entering school.  When your treasured children walk out the door to be instructed in another setting, your heart follows close behind.  And it goes not only with them, but the heart becomes all the more wrapped up in the well-being of that classroom, and that particular school, and that particular school system.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

There’s a story in the book of Jeremiah where the relationship between treasure and heart shows up.  For years, decades, Jeremiah had been preaching the unpopular message of Jerusalem’s destruction.  And now, that day had arrived.  The Babylonians, under the direction of King Nebuchadnezzar, have surrounded the city and put it under siege.  The city walls will be breached, its buildings leveled to the ground, the holy temple plundered and burned, its treasures carried off to Babylon, the princes captured and executed, the king and other city leaders and nearly all the people forcefully marched away in exile, carried off to Babylon.

Jeremiah was the prophet of doom who warned about all this.

But he was not without hope for the future.  He also prophesied a restoration.  And in Jeremiah 32 we read an account of him putting his money where his mouth was, firmly planting his heart in the Judean soil.

In the middle of the siege we get this rather detailed account of a real estate transaction.  King Zedekiah of Judah is convinced Jeremiah is going to defect to the Babylonians, so he has him imprisoned in the king’s palace.  Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel finds Jeremiah and asks him to buy his field in their ancestral area of Anathoth just east of Jerusalem.  We’re not told what prompted Hanamel to make this request, but the Torah taught that if someone was in dire need and had to sell off land in order to survive in the moment, that it fell to the nearest family member to purchase that land to keep it in the family.  The right of redemption – the obligation of redemption.

Buying land in a war zone is not exactly a good investment.  But Jeremiah had received a vision from God telling him to make the purchase.  So he does.  And the text is very careful to give us an almost play by play account of this economic exchange.  The deed is signed and copied, by hand of course, with witnesses.  One of the copies is sealed and one left open for quick reference.  The money is weighed and exchanged.  Both deeds are carefully placed in an earthen jar for preservation.  It is an official, genuine, legal exchange of property, with the papers to prove it.  Cousin Hanamel gets the silver, Jeremiah gets the family land about to be abandoned.  The point of the act is not for Jeremiah to buy low so he can sell high.  It will not be appreciating in his lifetime.  It is portrayed in the text as a symbolic prophetic action.  The sequence continues with Jeremiah 32:15 stating, “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  This is followed up with a prayer by Jeremiah, now crying out to God because he’s pretty sure he’s just made the worst investment of his life.

Just as soon as his street cred as a prophet is assured with Jerusalem’s destruction, he again looks like a fool, asked to invest in a restoration yet to come.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be.  Jeremiah will end his days exiled down in Egypt, but his heart, his longing heart, was camped out by his treasure in the depopulated fields of his kindred.

It’s a long and winding road from Jeremiah, through Jesus, to the present moment.  Many hearts have followed much treasure along the way.  And there has been much plunder.

Between Jourdon Anderson’s letter suggesting reparations from his old master – 1865 – and James Forman’s Black Manifesto demanding reparations from white churches and synagogues – 1969 – there was this map, and more real estate transactions that affected treasure and heart.  This map was first published in 1936 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a creation of the US Congress.  The goal was to help households refinance troubled mortgages during and after the Great Depression.  To do this Columbus and other cities across the US were split up into these four color coded categories with green considered the most desirable and safest areas to issue mortgages and other kinds of loans, and red considered the least desirable, highest risk mortgage.  Black neighborhoods were famously redlined.  Then and in the decades that followed as this became an entrenched practice, they didn’t receive the kind of mortgage and business and credit financing that enabled ownership and wealth building in other communities.  Neighborhoods with recent immigrants, even some recent European immigrants were also downgraded.



The colors on that map don’t directly correspond to racial or economic distributions in Columbus today, but they are a key part of the story.  Needless to say, redlining is another layer in the painful history of masterhood, and treasure acquired by some and denied to others.  I did zoom in on the map online and note that Columbus Mennonite Church is located in one of the few green zones.  And so I wonder, Does that mean something to us now, and if so, what is that?

It would be one thing if this was a situation where we had personally wronged someone and could make amends.  We would get a letter from our Jourdan Anderson outlining the extent of the damage, the treasure we have accumulated at the other’s expense, and the address we can mail the debt we owe.  It would be hard to swallow, but specific and concrete.  An act of reparations.

And there might be interpersonal situations like this we need to attend to.

But it all feels so much more subtle and elusive than that.  Redlining is no longer legal, but its effects are everywhere.  And if you’ve considered buying a home you’ve likely wrestled with all the factors of meeting your own needs and living out your values, and how zip codes are still coded with the opportunities and deficits we’ve inherited from the past.  Schools, for example.  And then there’s this cycle that gets perpetuated.  For where you treasure is, there you heart will be also?

Treasure is segregated, which means there’s always the danger of our hearts being segregated.  This is one of the great spiritual challenges of our time.  How to live in a time of treasure segregation without this encompassing the condition of our heart – our ability to see, the intentionality with which we go about our relationships, our intelligence and ability to understand others experiences, taking concrete actions to right past wrongs.  Our longing to live whole-hearted lives, in the pattern of Jesus, is frequently an act of resistance to the patterns so readily available to us.

I truly believe and hope that this awareness and consciousness we’re trying to develop together can be a source of empowerment rather than guilt and disempowerment.  We have treasure.  And we have heart.  There are ways that each of us can follow the cues of Jeremiah and invest in restoration.  It can be as simple as deciding to frequent a black owned business.  Or, like Barb Gant who bought 50 Black Lives Matter yard signs and has made them available at the church.  When I asked her how much I owe her she said, “Nothing.  Everyone can do something and this is one thing I’m doing.”  If the saying of Jesus holds up, when we intentionally put our treasure toward the restoration, then something wonderful and life-giving happens to our own hearts.  We sense and see new things, we think new thoughts, love gives birth to love, and we get glimpses of the great restoration yet to come.

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.


Temple sermons | 9 October 2016

Jeremiah 7, 26

Temple sermon #1

It was the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, a little before 600 BCE.  Jeremiah, the priest and prophet, went and stood in the gate of the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.  He proceeded to deliver a sermon that did not bring the house down.  It didn’t physically bring the house down.  The invading Babylonians would do that 20 years later.  It didn’t inspirationally bring the house down.  As far as we can tell, nobody was laughing, clapping, or shouting ‘Amen’ at Jeremiah’s words.  On the contrary, the text says when he was finished: “then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, ‘You shall die!’”  Wow – not a sermon response most seminaries prepare you for.  I much prefer silence followed by a hymn.

In the sermon, Jeremiah had challenged the mentality that the temple was the ultimate source of security for the people.  He says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh.’”  The way Jeremiah talks about it, this must have been a popular sentiment, and even a popular phrase of the time.  One neighbor says to another: ‘Hey, have you heard about those nasty Babylonians trying to take over the world?’  The neighbor replies: ‘Yeah, but we’re all good.  You know, we’ve got the temple of Yahweh.’  ‘Totally, the temple of Yahweh.’  The temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh.

Jeremiah has a different suggestion.  “If you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to you own hurt, then Yahweh will dwell with you in this place.”  In other words, if you want security, work for justice.  Stability proceeds from protecting the economically vulnerable.  If you want things to be all good, make sure all are getting access to the goods.

It’s an important enough sermon that we get two different accounts of it.  Jeremiah 7 focuses on the sermon itself, and chapter 26 does a quick summary of the sermon and focuses on the reaction to it.  It’s called, simply enough, “The temple sermon.”

Temple Sermon #2

About 600 years after Jeremiah, Jesus entered the Jerusalem of his day on the back of a donkey and headed into the rebuilt temple.  The beloved, sacred institution of his people was failing those who most needed it to be a place of safety and security.  It had become an instrument of wealth redistribution from the bottom to the top.  In the mind of Jesus, this was defiling its sacred mission to honor YHWH, the god who delivered the Hebrews from slavery.  In his sermon Jeremiah had referred to the temple as a den of robbers, and Jesus samples those prophetic words in his own temple sermon.  This, we may remember, also did not go over so well.

Temple sermon #3          

May 4, 1969.  On that Sunday, James Forman interrupted a worship service at the influential, predominantly white, Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York.  Forman stood in the pulpit and proceeded to read from a newly written document called The Black Manifesto.

If you’re like me, you never heard about this.

I first learned about it reading Jennifer Harvey’s book Dear White Christians.  She highlights this as a pivotal event in the relationship between white Christians and African Americans.  The first thing I noticed with this date, May 4, 1969, is that it’s a year and a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1968.  It made me realize that I have a big gaping hole in my understanding of the black struggle post King and that I’ve mis-learned the outcomes of the Civil Rights struggle.  Harvey writes:

“The way we remember the civil rights movement, which typically involves telling a triumphant tale of successful social transformation, is deeply inaccurate.  By the end of the 1960’s many Black Americans – including Black Christians – were not hailing civil rights as the success we hail it today.  In contrast, the end of the 1960’s found many African Americans in a state of despair and outrage” (p. 103).

Harvey tells the story of The Black Manifesto to illustrate the point.

It came out of the National Black Economic Development Conference.  A group of black leaders had been meeting for years with white religious leaders and were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the white leaders’ refusal to deal with the underlying material issues of jobs, housing, and financial resources for black folks – the deficits all a result of past and present injustices and outright theft of black resources.  The National Black Economic Development Conference was a black-only gathering in Detroit looking at what might be next for economic and community development strategies.  On the final night of the conference, James Forman introduced the Black Manifesto, which was endorsed by about a 3 to 1 vote.

On May 4, 1969, and in following weeks and months, Forman interrupted worship services in predominantly white congregations to read the Manifesto.  It’s about four pages.  Now easily accessed online.

The overarching theme of the Manifesto was a call for reparations.  $500 million paid from white churches across America to the Black Economic Development Conference.  It included specific ways the money would be used with assigned amounts, including a Black university in the South, a research skills center, a southern land bank, publishing and printing industries, a training center, a National Black Labor and Defense Fund.  Throughout the Manifesto it periodically notes that the amount of $500,000,000 is a modest amount, equal to only $15 per black American at that time.    One of the critiques of the document was that the amount demanded was far too low.  One white theologian, writing favorably about the Manifesto in the Christian Century in June of ’69, noted that churches could collectively raise the amount in a month of Sunday offerings.  That article was called: Black Manifesto: The Great White Hope.  (Ronald Goetz, “Black Manifesto: The Great White Hope,” The Christian Century 86 (June 18, 1969).

Harvey cites two scholars of the period who claimed: “Manifesto-related events caused greater vibrations in the US religious world than any other single human rights development in a decade of monumental happenings” (p. 108).  I had no idea.

Forman’s listeners didn’t instantly call for his death like those of Jeremiah’s temple sermon, but 2/3rds of the congregation, including the minister and choir, did walk out in protest.  To his credit, the Riverside minister, Ernest T. Campbell, did soon state that the Manifesto had “sound theological pinnings.”  In less than a week Campbell became the first white clergy leader to endorse the concept of reparations, although he didn’t mention following the demands of the Manifesto.

Jennifer Harvey names a number of the responses to the Manifesto, positive and negative.  But needless to say, the reason hardly any of us have heard this story before is that the white church came nowhere near responding in a constructive way.  It’s a legacy we’re still living with.  Imagine where we might be today if the church had accepted the challenge and fulfilled that specific call for reparations.  Or exceeded the amount.  Maybe it’s not too late to creatively respond.

Temple sermon #4

Will Campbell was a Baptist preacher born in Mississippi.  He was the only white person in the room at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He was one of the few people escorting black students through the hostile environment in the newly integrated public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas.  He died in 2013 at age 88.  If you like Wendell Berry, you’d like Will Campbell.  They’re cut from the same cloth of truth-telling contrariness and curmudgeonhood.

Will Campbell was once asked to preach at the Riverside Church, in Manhattan, New York.  I don’t know what year it was, but it was a number of years after Forman had interrupted a service to read the Black Manifesto.  There’s an hour long documentary of Campbell’s life that contains a clip from the sermon.  Here’s what he said in that rather immaculate space:

“So the question we are really asking is: What can we do about race and racism in American culture, and keep all this?  The answer, my brothers and sisters, is NOTHIN’.”  (  9:00 mark and following)

See, it’s a lot easier to quote other people for these things and then if you want to get angry at someone you can just get angry at them.

Jeremiah and Jesus and James Forman and Will Campbell gave their temple sermons in sacred spaces.  Not the town square, not a government building, but a temple, a church building.  Part of the reason has to be that this is where the people were, where key leaders were gathered.

We might also consider how having these appeals made in sacred space relates with our very sense of the sacred, and what offends us as a violation of the sacred.

What we hold as sacred is what holds our world together.  Everything else orbits around that gravitational center.  It’s not that Jeremiah was asking the people to give up the sacred.  He’s not mocking or belittling sacredness.  But he did suggest that folks had been duped.  What they held as utterly sacred, the temple in their case, or, was a lousy substitute for what YHWH held as sacred – the lives of the poor, widow, aliens, and orphan.  When their lives were violated, that’s what made Jeremiah offended.  That what energized him to stand up and speak.  But in doing so he challenged what other people held as sacred.

One of the dynamics we seem to be living through in our nation now is the challenge of another thing held sacred: The long, slow, painful death of white supremacy.

So what do we hold as sacred, or what can we aspire to hold as sacred, and how does that energize us?  We have a diversity of beliefs here, but one thing that holds us together is that we gather around the sacred.  There are realities, aspects of life, our morality and our mortality, that hold a sense of the sacred.  Transcendence.  Realities we honor, in whose presence we bow, which inspire awe, which we approach with thanksgiving. Spirit, Grace, Love, Justice, Christ.  The sacred asks, even demands, we value it to the point of submitting our lives to its power.  To soften our hearts, be filled with these sacred gifts, and give them back to the world, to God, in gratitude.

Even if we’re not always conscious of it, the sacred holds us in its embrace.

What these temple sermons challenge us to consider, is that the sacred also has very material manifestations.  Living within the holy has relational implications.  Economic implications.  Implications on how we use and share and give away power.  And, if we’re no longer trying to ‘keep all this,’ this is where it starts getting really real.

“To uproot, pull down, destroy, and overthrow.  To build and to plant.”  | 2 October 2016

Text: Jeremiah 1:4-19

 The opening chapter of Jeremiah narrates his call to be a prophet.  It’s told in the first person.  “Now the word of the Lord came to me.”  In typical Hebrew Bible fashion, it’s not clear how “the word of the Lord” actually came.  Whether it was through the voice of another person, a conviction heard inwardly, a message on the inside wrapping of a Dove chocolate.  What’s clear is that the call reaches the young Jeremiah, and sets the trajectory of his life.  The word of the Lord said, “I appoint you a prophet to the nations,” and this is what Jeremiah became.

A little over a year ago the chairs of the different CMC Commissions sat down together.  We asked ourselves the question: What do we need to be paying attention to?  What’s going on in the world, what’s going on in the congregation, what’s going on in our hearts, and might this point to some kind of overarching focus for the coming year?  After filling up a white board with input, and giving space for silent reflection on what we had heard from one another, a strong consensus emerged that we need to be talking about race.  Although we often hesitate to use this language, another way of saying this would be that through this shared discernment, the word of the Lord came to us.  The word of the Lord came to us, gave us a calling, and set us on a trajectory.

During the season of Lent we had a worship theme of Trouble the Waters.  We took a collective dive into the waters of white privilege, black lives matter, and a posture of antiracism.  This month of October will be a similar worship theme.  The prophet Jeremiah will be our tour guide as we ponder moving beyond an ideology of colorblindness, into racial consciousness, toward lives that reject and even disrupt racism and work for justice.  I’m aware that the previous pastors, Steve and Susan Ortman Goering would regularly address difficult subjects, hot potatoes, during the month of October, so we carry on in that spirit.

One of the books informing my own thinking these days is written by Jennifer Harvey.  It’s called Dear White Christians.  Toward the beginning, she describes an exercise she uses with her college students.  She asks them to imagine “what they would think if they saw a group of African American students walking across campus, carrying signs that stated, ‘Black is beautiful’” (p. 44).  Students typically interpret a scene like this as an expression of community pride, a celebration of black identity, or perhaps a protest of some kind of recent injustice.  Overall students register a positive, favorable response to such an expression.

Harvey then asks the students to imagine what their impressions might be if they saw a group of students carrying a sign saying, “White is beautiful.”

She notes that this is the point where students usually get pretty quiet, squirmy, shaking their heads.  No, this isn’t OK.

Why? Harvey pushes.  Don’t we want to include all kinds of diversity?  Well, the students stumble, “calling white ‘beautiful’ seems like an endorsement of white supremacy or a rallying cry for the Ku Klux Klan.”  Harvey writes: “They’re not sure why our commitment to diversity does not make it possible for these ‘white’ signs to communicate the same message as do the ‘Black’ signs.  But they are very clear the signs are not the same” (p. 45).

Ta-Nehisi Coates also addresses this “not the same” dynamic in Between the World and Me, a book written as a letter to his 15 year old son.  The historic problem, Coates makes clear, is not one of diversity, but one of abusive hierarchy.  The whole impetus behind the very creation of racial categories was to establish a social hierarchy, and the legacy persists.

Coates’ language is direct.  And it just so happens that in a quote addressing these matters he mentions Mennonites.  Here’s what he says, using “the people” and “the new people” to refer to white folks.  And remember, this is a letter written to his son.

“The process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.  Difference in hue and hair is old.  But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.  These new people are, like us, a modern invention.  But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning, divorced from the machinery of criminal power.  The new people were something else before they were white – Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish – and if our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again” (p. 7).

I don’t often pull in long quotes from books during sermons, but I want to bring in Harvey’s and Coates’ voices as a way of recognizing the broader cultural conversation happening right now.  And as a way of more clearly naming the non-symmetrical nature of racialization.  The problem is not primarily one of diversity, but one of hierarchy.  And it persists.  And we’re all caught up in it.  And it reaches way down into the subconscious, and it manifests itself in small, and deadly ways.

All this amounts to what Harvey call the ‘moral crisis of whiteness.’  It’s not that there’s anything morally wrong with this beautiful, tan-able light skin.  It’s that the category of ‘white’ is morally problematic.

When the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, it says that the Lord put out a hand and touched Jeremiah’s mouth.  “And the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today, I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Eve has been doing some math homework with fractions, and so I notice that 4/6’s of the actions Jeremiah is called to do – which reduces to 2/3rds of the actions Jeremiah is called to do – are actually focused on un-doing.  The metaphors are drawn from the familiar worlds of agriculture and construction.  I appoint you to uproot, pull down, destroy, and overthrow, to build and to plant.  The implication is that something has grown up which is detrimental to the health of the community.  Some kind of moral edifice has been constructed which violates all manner of code and has been officially condemned as unsafe for occupancy.  It’s not enough to simply plant and build.  The first order of business, the larger and more difficult task, filling out a full 2/3rds of the job description, is demolition.  Toppling over.  Tearing things up by their roots.  A great undoing.

To echo the language of Ta-Nehisi Coates, if whites folks, who were “something else before they were white,” are to fulfill hope and “become something else again,” giving up whiteness as an organizing identity, then it will take more than simply building something fresh or planting something new.  It will involve some difficult and perhaps painful soul work.  It will involve uprooting unconscious biases.  It will involve pulling down and toppling systems which enable privilege to thrive unnamed.  It will involve giving up power, listening, learning, giving up home field advantage regarding who sets the agenda for the work to be done.  If Coates and Harvey are to be followed as they develop their arguments, it involves reparations for past harms.  It involves walking toward pain rather than away from it, and walking toward the unknown.  When things get undone, when the structures come down and the fields are cleared, the map starts to look pretty unfamiliar and confusing.

No wonder prophets drove people crazy.  This isn’t fun.  This isn’t how most people want to be spending their Thursday evenings.

And Jeremiah, frankly, wants nothing to do with the whole mess.  He is definitely not a self-appointed prophet.  Jeremiah’s response is that he’s too young, but the larger point is that he doesn’t want to do it.  Period.

He follows in the grand tradition of Hebrew prophets actively resisting this call that comes at them from beyond.  Moses claimed he couldn’t speak, Isaiah claimed he had unclean lips, Elijah and Jonah said they’d prefer to die – very dramatic stuff.  It’s almost as if not wanting the job is the primary prerequisite for doing the Lord’s work.  Resistance to the call is a sign that you are indeed called.  That way the ego is already out of the way.  The primary obstacle is already removed.  It’s not about you, it’s so much bigger than that.  Maybe that’s half the work of the first 2/3rds, which I believe amounts to 1/3rd of the overall work.  To see if all the math is right you can check the church website which is doing a real time fact check of today’s service.

So what does Jeremiah get out of this?  What’s in it for him?  When you’re trying to convince someone to get on board with a project you’re supposed to appeal to their self-interest.  So how is this call going to help Jeremiah?

Well, if Jeremiah could peak ahead and see how all this was going to unfold, he might struggle to see how his self-interest was being met.  He lived during a time of national deconstruction, when the great emerging empire of the time, the Babylonians, would come and conquer his people and carry them off into exile.  Jeremiah himself would eventually flee to Egypt.  He’s not called the weeping prophet for nothing.  He lived during a period of national travail, and it didn’t get sorted out in his lifetime.

But one thing he does gain from his eventual Yes to this project, shows up already in chapter one.  After the initial call, and the no, I’m too young, and the do not be afraid for I am with you, and the divine hand reaching out to touch Jeremiah’s lips, and the assignment of uprooting and knocking down and building up, after that rather overwhelming sequence after which it’s not clear at all how Jeremiah would take even the first step toward fulfilling this call…after this, Jeremiah is asked a very simple question:

Verse 11 of chapter 1: “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’”

What do you see, Jeremiah?  What do you see?  Not what’s you plan?  What are you going to do?  When are you going to do it?  It will come to that soon enough.  But first, What do you see?  Take a look around.  Go outside and walk around the block.  Drive around the neighborhood.  Drive around somebody else’s neighborhood.  Take your time.  What do you see?  Make an observation.  Notice something.  Pay a little closer attention than you have before and tell me, What do you see?

Getting on board with the word of the Lord means that Jeremiah gets to see things he would not have seen otherwise.  He gets to open his eyes, look, and see.  What’s he’s going to see isn’t always going to be easy to look at.  It might be about 2/3rds devastating and 1/3rd beautiful.  But he is given the gift of sight.

Jesus will have a similar invitation to his followers when he will say, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you have seen.  For many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Luke 10:23-24).

One of the features of how racism persists in our time is that it thrives on blindness.  It manages to be outrageously obvious to those who experience it, while at the same time being nearly invisible to those who don’t.  It requires blindness and forgetfulness of history in order to stay alive.

And so a first question to those who accept the call to uproot and tear down, and build up, is What do you see?  And if you don’t see anything, if all we see is our own blindness, then that’s a pretty honest place to start.

Look around.  Pay attention.  Do not be afraid.  What do you see?

From loss to celebration | 11 September 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Luke 15:1-10


It’s our first Sunday back in this building which is feeling both familiar and new.  It’s the opening Sunday of the Christian Education year.  And it’s the fifteen year anniversary, today, of the 9/11 attacks.

Any one of these three could be the focus of a worship theme.  But with all three we have a full plate.

One of the most startling realizations I had this past week was that for all of our young people starting Sunday school today, 9/11 is an historical event.  Something to read and hear stories about, but not something they, you, experienced personally.  Even our high school seniors were just two or three years old when it happened.  Recent college grads were in their first years of elementary school.  The post 9/11 world is the only world you’ve known.  Fifteen years ago our country was the big kid out on the playground, and got sucker punched in front of everyone.  We’ve been hitting back ever since, uncertain how to heal.

I love how our lectionary scriptures keep us grounded in a bigger story.  A story that stands on its own, yet manages to speak something fresh into our time.  Today’s two readings share a common theme of loss, with Jeremiah anticipating an impending loss, and Luke offering parables that conclude in celebration, on the other side of loss.  Loss is something that happens at every level of existence, from the national loss of an event like 9/11, to personal loss – a sheep, a coin, a parent, an ability, losing our bearings, losing our religion, losing our mind.  Loss.

Civil rights veteran John Perkins is fond of saying that a leader is someone who is willing to enter into the pain of their people.  By this definition, the prophet Jeremiah was an exemplary leader of the people of Judah during a period of national crisis.  His public witness spanned 40 years before and during the great exile, when Jerusalem and its temple were crushed by the Babylonians.  Everyone of social standing was carried away in exile.  Only the poor were left behind to work the land.

Jeremiah is sometimes known as the ‘weeping prophet.’  At the beginning of chapter 9 he cries out, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”

Chapter four, which we read part of, contains an even more visceral description of Jeremiah entering into the pain of his people.  In Verse 19 he cries out, “My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!  Oh, the walls of my heart!  My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.”  His people are about to be swallowed up by the violence of a massive empire, and Jeremiah is about to have a heart attack.  He feels the anguish and anxiety in his capillaries.  Being a prophet can be hazardous to one’s health.

Just as aside, it’s interesting to see the rise in the emphasis on self-care these days.  There’s a growing awareness, a healthy awareness, that taking care of your own heart is not only good for you, but good for the movement.  Jeremiah could have used this counsel.

Jeremiah 4 continues with a remarkable passage.  There are only two places in the Hebrew Bible that contain the poetic Hebrew phrase ToHu va BoHu.  In English it is translated as “formless and void,” or “formless and empty,” or, the more poetic, “welter and waste.”  It shows up here in Jeremiah 4:23.  The other, much more familiar reference, is Genesis 1.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth, it was formless and void.”  ToHu va BoHu.

In Genesis, this characterizes the beginning point of creation.  It is the condition of chaos and disorder into which the god, Elohim, speaks, and thus creates.  It’s an account of structure emerging from no-structure that unfolds kind of like a time lapse video that we didn’t take of our stage and kitchen renovations.  Start with the void right after demolition, and watch it emerge from nothing more than an idea.  Seth Trance and Ajay Massey skillfully play the part of Elohim.  The configuration takes shape, all the infrastructure is set in place, and finishing touches are made.  It is complete, but merely beginning.  The stage is set, so to speak.  The platform is ready for action, the backdrop is ready for artistic expression, and the kitchen is ready to start cooking up all kinds of goodness.  The kitchen is almost ready.

In Genesis, Elohim utters language into the formlessness and void.  Light!  Land!  Creatures of sea, earth, and sky.  Humanity.  Order and life emerge from disorder.  Scattered atoms and molecules co-ordinate and co-operate.  Creation flows forth in ever more complex arrangements, creating and recreating itself.

Humans are birthed with god-like powers, in the image of Elohim.  The bright light of consciousness burns strong within them.  More than other creatures, they subdue animal instinct.  They will soon start making stuff, making decisions.  And Elohim saw it all, and lo, it was very good.

This is the cosmos that Genesis 1 narrates into being.   This is the sacred world of original blessing and goodness that permeated the Hebrew mind.  The world into which the children of Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, are born, called to be a blessing to all people.

And so when Jeremiah samples this phrase from Genesis, he conjures this entire meaning-making structure of Hebrew myth.  But for Jeremiah, the prophet of weeping and anguish, creation has gone terribly awry.   The prophet says, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was formless and void, Tohu va Bohu, and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking…I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.”  When Jeremiah looks at what is happening to his people and land, he sees Genesis 1 in reverse.  The video is playing backwards.  The people, the birds, the light, are gone, and we’re back to welter and waste.  The world that he loves has been un-created.  It is a picture of devastating loss.

And it’s important to recognize this as a double loss.  There is the loss of temple, and land, the loss of precious lives, the loss of political independence.  That’s one kind of loss.  But there’s another form of loss that is equally or perhaps even more anguishing.  There is the loss of a coherent way of making sense of the world.  A crisis of meaning.  By evoking the foundational meaning-making myth of his people, Jeremiah is acknowledging that not only have the structures of their buildings been leveled, but so too has the structure of their minds.  A people whose identity was attached so closely to land, temple, and king, now has none of those.  Not only did their god not protect them, but, as far as they could imagine, their god turned against them, rousing their enemies to come and destroy them.  And now, neither they nor their go have a place to call home.  They have been exiled from all they hold sacred.  The stories they told about themselves and their divinely ordained destiny no longer fit their present reality.

After the weeping, what’s next?  In the late 60’s psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  But when a loss messes with the mythic structure of our minds, there’s even more work to be done.

If we can recognize ourselves, and our nation, in this story, we might wonder if we too have undergone a double loss in the last 15 years.  We’ve done well in the rebuilding of the physical structures, but our national myths and sense of collective meaning are not near as solid.  I wonder if this is one of the reasons why “Make America Great Again” has captured the imaginations of so many people.  It’s an incredibly powerful myth.  We were once a blessed and great people.  We will be great again.  Never mind that the further you go back in time toward the elusive golden age, the more and more people are disenfranchised, the closer we get to outright patriarchy, slavery of Africans and genocide of Natives.  But myths and facts don’t always rhyme, and when our meaning making structures have been rendered formless and void, we need a myth to give shape to our reality.  Even the postmodern allergy to meta-narratives is itself a kind of myth.  We can shoulder all kinds of losses and make it through to the other side of acceptance, but when we lose our story of who we are, and how we fit into the bigger picture, we are truly lost.

Why is it that a professional football player who is refusing to stand for the national anthem until something is done about black suffering is getting so much attention these days?  Could it be that his action is a full on threat to the kind of myth some folks are trying to hold on to with all their might?  A myth of our own inherent goodness and benevolence and blessedness.  For the myth to really work, everyone has to stand and pledge their allegiance to it.

When I sat down to write this sermon I didn’t set out to talk about myth, but that’s obviously the direction it took.  We are starting the Sunday school year today.  More than just learning information and  Bible stories, I suggest that the most important learning we can be doing together is the learning of an alternative myth to the ones we are regularly told.  And this is a very Anabaptist and Mennonite approach to what faith and religion offer us.  Rather than teaching us how to be nice and well-adjusted people within the political and economic systems we inhabit, our Christ-centered faith has something to say about the very underlying assumptions of what it means to be blessed, to be successful, to be human.

Our faith proposes that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross is the ultimate myth-busting event of history.  The gods of empire, nationalism, and more recently, consumer capitalism, rely on the myth of their own goodness in order to survive.  They are there to protect and shepherd us into safety and prosperity.  They are watching over us for our well-being.  Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for they are with us.  The nation’s arsenal of weapons will guard us.  The market’s vast array of consumer goods will comfort us.

But when the one who was without fault challenged the goodness of the entire program, gathering and embracing the people it left behind, going on a rant in the sacred precincts of the temple that the leaders of his own people had worked so hard to restore to make Jerusalem great again….When that one was deemed a threat to the whole project, and brutally and publicly executed, it exposed the whole mythic framework of the empire, and any religion that colludes with it.  It rendered it formless and void of any power to save those who most needed salvation.

The earth shook, the sky went dark, the temple veil was torn in two, and the age old myth that had ruled the world for so long was uncreated.  For those with eyes to see, this was ground zero of the apocalypse, and we’ve been living in a post-apocalyptic world ever since.   The old myths are still gasping for breath, grasping for attention, but we’re not buying it.

You also don’t have to buy anything I’m saying.  It’s one way of reading the meaning of the Christian gospel.

And that’s not the end of it.

The gospel speaks not only of crucifixion and myth-busting, but also offers a myth of its own, a story into which we can live.  It’s a story where death is followed by resurrection.  New life, not of our own making, but life given back to us, freed from illusion, energized by love rather than fear, motivated toward restorative justice rather than vengeance.  It’s a story in which everything and everyone belongs.  It’s a story which includes death and loss, but transcends it within a wider circle of abundance and life which leads to more life.  It’s a story in which a single sheep and a single coin, a single life, is deemed valuable enough to go on a great search, to light a lamp and look under furniture.  To poke around in the darkest corners, until the lost one is found.  And when she is found, to not interogate or point fingers or lay blame, but to put out an invite to the entire list of contacts, and throw a celebration, a great fiesta, because what was lost has been found.  And the earth and heavens rejoice.

Joint worship service with North Broadway United Methodist Church| 28 August 2016

While our sanctuary undergoes renovations, we held a joint worship service with our neighbors at North Broadway United Methodist Church.  For the sermon their pastor and I each talked about our own faith traditions and how our congregations are living that out.  Below are my portions of the sermon. 

Text: Matthew 5:1-12

You all have been such good neighbors to us this summer.  We have held both a regional conference and three Sundays of worship in your fellowship hall.  And it feels very fitting that we now get to worship together, so many thanks for that.

In my experience, people tend to have three main frames of reference for Mennonites.

The first, and probably most common preconception, is that Mennonites are kind of like the Amish.  We are Amish-lite.  Same great taste, but less filled with rules and regulations about dress and technology.  And this is kind of historically accurate.  Mennonites and Amish do share a spiritual ancestry.  The 16th century Anabaptists emphasized that baptism and the Christian life were to be arrived at through a conscious adult decision.  Anabaptist means “re-baptizers.”  At the beginning of the 18th century, Jacob Amman (Amish) believed his sisters and brothers in this stream of the church were becoming too lax in their enforcement of discipline, and that people who weren’t willing to be baptized as adults should not be considered “saved.” A new fellowship formed around his leadership, and the Amish, and the Mennonites parted ways…but we remain cousins.

A second association some people have with Mennonites is what we do.  Mennonites are active in disaster relief in the US and Canada, our Mennonite Central Committee has people serving around the world in community development and peacemaking efforts.  Mennonites were involved in helping initiate the current Fair Trade movement.  Some of you Methodists know us Columbus Mennonites through our partnership serving a monthly supper at the YWCA Family Center, or for our shared involvement in the BREAD organization.  We also lined up close to each other in this summer’s Pride Parade.

So Mennonites tend to be known for being Amish-lite, for what we do, and the third thing some people pick up on is what we don’t do.  Specifically, that we are a pacifist tradition, and more specifically, we teach conscientious objection regarding participation in warfare and violence.  This gets at part of your question.

This goes back to those early 16th century Anabaptists who lived during a time of great social and religious upheaval.  It actually has some interesting parallels to our own time as the internet continues to reshape social and economic life, decentralizing access to information, making communication possible in ways that simply didn’t exist 25 years ago.  Apparently the world wide web had its 25 year birthday this past week, August 23rd, so happy birthday invisible force that controls our lives.

In the 15th and 16th century, the great technological breakthrough was the printing press, which, very quickly, allowed for the dissemination of information, books, the Bible.  Those who previously depended on priests and professionals to mediate the written word for them now had it in hand.  This had a similar kind of decentralizing effect on social and political and certainly religious life, which were all pretty closely inter-related at the time.

Some of the early Anabaptists, eager to study scripture but untrained in historical interpretation, came to believe that the Kingdom of God was indeed at hand, as the New Testament says often, and some took up weapons to help the process along.

This is where our namesake, Menno Simons, comes into the picture.  He was a Catholic priest who had become sympathetic to Anabaptists, but he flatly rejected the use of violence.  In his reading of the New Testament he saw no room for followers of Jesus to engage in killing or even defending themselves with violent means.  His words from the hymn we sang together were a central part of his teaching: “We are people of God’s peace.”

Like so many Christian groups who claim to be recovering the true message of Christ, our Mennonite forbears, Bibles in hand, fresh off the printing press, were convinced they were recovering Jesus’ original message.  In this case, peaceful living.  And they lived this out with great conviction.  It is a martyr tradition and many of them died for their faith, unwilling to align with any of the religious factions developing across central Europe taking and defending territory.

And this is a conviction that very much lives on in our Mennonite faith.  We see it as both an inward and an outward journey.  Cultivating peace with oneself and peace with God is inseparable from building peace in families and neighborhoods, and across tribal and national boundaries.

So we, the spiritual descendants of Menno and the Anabaptists, are still haunted and inspired by the beauty and barely visible horizon of the peaceable kingdom that Jesus taught and lived and to which his death and resurrection point.



It’s great to be able to tell a few stories about our congregation, but I have to say that it feels a little bit like proud boasting, which for Mennonites is really the only unforgiveable sin.  So let me first pose a few humbling questions: What happens when a persecuted religious sect, Mennonites – that gets used to thinking of itself as a persecuted religious sect – becomes members of the comfortable class within a global superpower?  How did Mennonites become white Americans, transitioning from an ethnic minority to people who benefit from the long history of racial injustice in the US?  Since we are now made up of people from many backgrounds, how do we be ‘community’ for each other in practical ways and resist the forces of individualism?

One of the ways of talking about Columbus Mennonite Church, is that we are a group of people who  encourage and pursue questions.  Many of them are difficult questions like these.

This year we’re having a specific focus on antiracism.  Many of our worship services, Christian Education themes, programming, and mission have been geared toward exploring and learning about racial injustice and white privilege.  It feels like a very long journey.  I have no idea if we’re going about it the right way, but one of the signs, for me, that it might be working, has been various comments from parents that their kids are now asking good questions at home about racism.

Last spring we recognized that a number of us are carrying burdensome debt, especially young adults with education debt.  We challenged the congregation to raise $10,000, to be distributed evenly to those in need of debt relief, who would remain anonymous recipients.  It would be mostly symbolic, like a mini practice of the Jubilee from the book of Leviticus.  Much to our joyful surprise, we ended up raising over $25,000, distributing that to 28 individuals, a little over $900 of debt reduction for each.  It was a pretty cool way of being community, even as many of those debts remain burdensome.

Two summers ago we did a Twelve Scriptures project.  We surveyed the congregation for people’s twelve core scriptures that shape how they approach faith.  We then did a worship series on the top twelve.  The Beatitudes, which we heard here, made the final cut.  The Beatitudes talk about what it means to be Blessed, or fortunate.  It’s certainly not your typical checklist for what it means to live the blessed life.  Blessed are the economically secure.  Check.  Blessed are the educated.  Check.  Blessed are the upwardly mobile, the well dressed and well spoken, those who have their stuff together.

Instead, Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted.

It’s a pretty counterintuitive list of blessings.  So I think we as a congregation try to be a blessing in our community and in our world, and also recognize that being a follower of Jesus puts us in constant jeopardy of having our whole notion of blessing turned upside down.

Overall, we find that we have so much more in common with people of faith like yourselves than we have different, and so we value every chance we get to learn with others how we can better live out our baptismal vows and be the body of Christ in Columbus, Ohio in the 21st century.

What are a few ways you all at North Broadway UMC are living out your faith?  And if Methodists are cool with boasting, please do that as much as you’d like.

“She stood up straight” | 21 August 2016

Text: Luke 13:10-17

 The great 16th century reformer Martin Luther characterized the human condition with the Latin phrase “homo incurvatus in se.”  I never studied Latin, but this is a good one for beginners.  It sounds a lot like its English equivalent.  Homo – Human.    incurvatus – curved in.    in se – on itself.  This is the predicament of our species, Luther taught, our sinful state.  Humanity curved in on itself.

This can be pictured fairly easily.  It’s visual.  It is bodily.  Rather than having one’s head up, eyes looking out, ears attentive, the body curves in on itself.  Incurvatus.  And we are stuck.  We can’t see beyond ourselves.  We can’t really reach out beyond ourselves.  We are curved in on ourselves.

And if this is the broken condition, then salvation looks like this:  Having one’s back straightened, one’s shoulders lifted, one’s head raised, eyes now alert, arms open.  Curved in à salvation.

I’ve been assuming these two positions at random times the last few days, partly to feel the difference between them, and partly because I overworked my back one day during the stay-cation portion of our vacation and am still feeling it.  The hidden cost of do it yourself house projects.

I once heard someone say that you know you’re getting older when you bend over to pick something up and you think, Now what else can I do while I’m down here.  I’m not that bad off – yet.

It just so happens that this week’s gospel lectionary has to do with incurvatus and standing up straight.  Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, the final time he will do this in Luke.   It’s the Sabbath, the day of rest.  And there was a woman there.  A woman whose name we never learn, identified only by her disability.  As Luke tells it, she had been disabled by a spirit for 18 years.  She was bent over.  She couldn’t stand up straight.

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, but when he notices her, he interrupts his own lecture, and calls her over.

The woman comes over, up, in to the center.  Everyone’s attention turns.  The object of the day’s lesson is no longer a scroll.  It’s no longer ancient words being parsed, text being meditated on and interpreted.  All eyes are focused on this woman.  The object of the day’s lesson has suddenly become a body.  The bent over, crooked body of this woman.

We have been taught the skills of interpreting texts, but how do you interpret a body?  What’s it saying?  What does it mean?  What’s the story here?  Behind the obvious plain reading, what are the subtle and nuanced forces at work?

Knowing what we know about how women were treated in that world – very poorly – and keeping in mind the special attention Luke gives throughout his gospel to marginalized people, this woman becomes all the more central to what Jesus proclaimed in his first synagogue appearance in Luke, in his hometown of Nazareth.  That the good news for all people had to do with proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free.

When Luther wrote about incurvatus, he meant it primarily as being self-centered.  We are narcissistic, naval gazers, and the more we are curved inward the smaller our world gets, until it is just the isolated self, pitying itself.  This is certainly part of the picture, and seems to be the demon that Luther himself, a person of power and privilege, wrestled with most of his life.

There’s a good chance Luke is inviting us into an additional dimension of incurvatus in this story.  Like the other gospel writers Luke is fond of linking different stories together through textual clues.  Jesus will justify this Sabbath healing by arguing that people are willing to untie their ox on the Sabbath and lead it to water, so how much moreso should this woman, tied up for 18 long years, be unbound.  Jesus will soon perform another Sabbath healing, this time for a man.  He’ll make another ox-based argument – this time about getting an ox out of a pit.  The connection invites us to pay attention to how the stories illuminate eachother.

Sabbath, Sabbath.  Ox, ox.  Woman, man.  Healed, healed.

Another pertinent connection here is with a story right before it, and that thread in this case is that number 18.  Eighteen years she had this disabling spirit.  Just a few verses before, in the same chapter, Jesus recalls a recent event in which the tower of Siloam fell on a group of people, killing all of them.  All 18 of them.  It was common, and still is, unfortunately, to moralize such events.  What did those 18 people do wrong to deserve a fate like that?  Jesus flatly rejects this thinking, saying “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, No”  (Luke 13:4-5).

And now we are introduced to this woman, disabled by a spirit for 18 years.  What, Luke might be nudging us to ask, has fallen on this woman over the course of those 18 years to cause her to be, in the words of the NRSV, “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight?”  What kind of spirit is this doing the disabling?

This leaves plenty to the imagination.  Lots of room for midrash, for filling in the blanks, which for preachers is almost irresistible.  Was this one tragic incident 18 years ago that curved this woman back in on herself, or was this a barrage of events?  An accumulation, slowly bending her over until she’s no longer recognizable, even to herself?

When does the wide eyed girl, full of life, full of herself, first learn that she is less-than?  When do the shoulders first slump?  When does the head first dip, ever so slightly?  Is it a word, an offhand remark?  Is it an unwanted touch?  Is it just something in the air, long filled with the weight of such things?

How much does it take before it really starts to show?  How long does she resist before it’s too much to hold?  It’s wearing.  Tiring.  The body psychosomatically bends, curves in on itself, like a protective shell.  An adaptive feature for survival in a hostile environment.  If it stays there long enough, it might even start to feel normal.  This is who I am, the mind starts to tell the body.  Maybe she even convinces herself that it’s better this way.  It’s easier not to look up and out.  Stay down, stay away, try to slip into the synagogue unnoticed to hear the teacher from Nazareth everyone’s been talking about.

Well, so much for that plan.

In his final recorded synagogue appearance Jesus has set aside the text, and called her up.  And there she is, with her bent body.

In his final meal with his closest companions, Jesus will put his own body front and center.  He will tell them that eating the bread and drinking the cup is a participation in his own body.  If they would see with eyes of faith, they would see that Jesus’ body is not just his own, but that they all share in that body.  The church has always taught that to be a part of the church is to share in the same body, the crucified and risen body of Christ.  We share in the sufferings, and we share in the miracle of being raised up.  Resurrection.

For those perceptive listeners in the synagogue that day, they may have recognized that they too share in the body of this woman.  She is not merely an unfortunate individual, but a sign of our collective reality.  A sign of how we are curved in on ourselves, and a sign of how we perpetuate patterns and habits and systems that cause others and whole groups of people to be bent over.  How we are all possessed by a disabling spirit.  Had they been especially tuned in, they would have perceived that their own salvation was connected to the salvation of this woman, their bodies made more whole when she is able to stand up straight, as Jesus will soon enable her to do.

Not everyone will see things this way.  The leader of the synagogue is not pleased.  He grasps for a reason for why this can’t be right.  It’s the Sabbath, come be cured on another day.  It’s not really technically against the Torah, and he’ll be shamed by Jesus’ ox analogy, losing the textual argument.  It’s just, you know, not how we do things around here.  It’s against protocol.  It messes with the order of things.

But in this story he’s a lone voice for this perspective.  Luke says, “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’  When he had laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

This passage ends by saying, “And the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.”  The collective body is made more whole through the healing of this woman.

By the grace of God, Humanity curved in on itself, Homo incurvatus in se, is raised up.  And we get a taste of the cup of salvation.  And the body rejoices.



“Neither shalt thou stand idly by” |24 July 2016

Text: Luke 10:25:37

A woman was walking out from her house to her car when suddenly two men snatched her purse, pushed her down, and fled the scene.  Several of her neighbors heard the commotion, opened their curtains, but quickly closed them again.  Another saw what happened and called 911.  Several others went out to the woman, helped her up, and stayed with her until the police and medics arrived.

Now the two men who mugged her were convicted felons.  They’d recently received early release from prison for good behavior.  They had every intention of finding a job and leading productive lives, but every place they applied rejected their application because of their status as felons.  Like other felons, they were barred from receiving federal cash assistance, food stamps, and other benefits.  They were also ineligible to live in public housing.  Without any source of income and without shelter, they soon resorted to petty crime to supply their needs.

They were never caught for stealing the woman’s purse.  One day, soon afterwards, they saw a news feature about a local organization with an internship program to help the formerly incarcerated get job placements.  Rather than using the word “felon,” or “ex-felon,” this organization referred to people like them as “returning citizens.”  The men visited the organization, were accepted as a part of the program, and after excelling through the six month internship, began full time jobs.  Once they were settled in an apartment with some extra cash, one of them had an idea that the other quickly agreed to, even though it involved breaking the law.

Late at night they returned to the home of the woman they had mugged.  They ran up to the mailbox, put an envelope inside (which is illegal), and drove off down the street before anyone saw them.  The next day when the woman was checking her mail she discovered an envelope full of cash, exactly twice the amount stolen from her purse months before.  She would never find out that the same people who robbed her had become her Good Samaritan.

Like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, this story never actually happened, although I did try to get the legal stuff right about the obstacles returning citizens face with felony charges.  Or maybe this story has happened, without us knowing it.  But it doesn’t have to be historical fact in order to be true.  That’s almost the definition of a parable.  True fiction.

Leviticus 19:18 commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It’s one of two scriptures cited by an expert in the law as an answer to his own question.  He had asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus had responded by asking him how he saw it.  “What is written in the Torah?” Jesus had asked.  “What do you read there?”

This passage from Leviticus was already recognized as one of the best distillations of the teachings of the Torah.  The prominent Rabbi Hillel, who taught before Jesus’ time and whose teachings Jesus often echoes, was once famously asked by a potential convert to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one leg.  As recorded in the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel assumed the one legged pose and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary.  Go and learn it” (Babylonian Talmud, b. Sabb. 31a).

It’s not an exact quote from Leviticus 19:18, but it gets at the same idea.  According to Rabbi Hillel, and Jesus, and even this expert in the law, fair treatment of one’s neighbor, is the centering principle of the Torah.  Everything else is just commentary.  The Torah is one big jazz performance, with a central theme, accompanied with near endless variations on that theme.

And so simply restating that central theme is not enough for the expert in the law.  “Love your neighbor,” is too general, too broad.  It provokes a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?”  Give us some commentary, Jesus.  Fill this out for us.  Tell us a story.  Now that the theme has been established, break out the instrument of choice and improvise a variation for us.

And this is what Jesus does.  After being asked this second question, “And who is my neighbor?” he proceeds to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

One day, not so long ago, a young man by the name of Philando Castile was driving down the streets of suburban St. Paul, Minnesota with his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four year old daughter.  They were on their way home from grocery shopping.  They were pulled over by police officers who radioed a nearby squad that the two adult occupants looked like people involved in a recent robbery.  The officer approached the car and asked Castile to produce his license and registration.

Now a pastor happened to be standing near the scene.  When he saw an officer pulling over a black man he thought to himself, “This is not going to turn out well.”

An activist was also standing nearby.  When she saw this unfolding in front of her she said to herself, “Oh no, here we go again.”

Now a longtime member of the NRA was walking down the street right where the car had been pulled over.  He heard the officer ask for the license and registration and heard Philando Castile reply that they were in his wallet and he would get them out.  When Castile also gave the officer a heads up that he was licensed to carry a gun and had one on him right now, the NRA member noticed the officer reach for his handgun.  Immediately the longtime member of the NRA ran toward the driver side of the car and thrust his body between the officer and Philando Castile.

The NRA member proceeded to defend the second amendment rights of the driver and demand that the officer put his own gun back in its holster.  Several intense minutes later the situation had deescalated.

The officer went back to his car, resuming his patrol of the neighborhood; and Philando Castile, Diamond Reynolds, and her four year old daughter drove home, to put away their groceries.

Like this story, maybe the parable of the Good Samaritan was based on a true story.  Maybe the introduction of the priest and Levite and Samaritan into the mix was a way of imagining how a tragic story could have turned out differently.  What if?  What if the narrative of violence was to be interrupted by someone we would least expect?  Who, I ask you, was the true neighbor in this story?

Perhaps Jesus created the Parable of the Good Samaritan out of scratch.  Or maybe it came to him from a real situation he’d observed or heard about.  But a close reading of Leviticus 19 makes one wonder whether some key ingredients of the parable were already right there, in Leviticus.

Leviticus 19:18 clearly says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but Leviticus 19:16, two verses before it, likely gets lost in translation.  The NRSV has it saying, “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”  If this is the correct translation, and if one were to make a connection between verses 16 and 18 of Leviticus, one might tell a parable much like the one about the robbers who eventually make restitution for their wrongs.  They are caught up in a system in which it is hard to do good, and so they do harm to survive.  After they are shown mercy, they realize they must right the wrongs they’ve done.  They pay back the harm they’ve caused, thereby fulfilling both commandments, Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”  Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I like this story, and since our Bible school theme is Surprise!, I like the surprise twist this places on the familiar parable.  Last week I talked about the injured traveler as the lost character in this parable, the one the original listeners would have identified with but who plays only a minor and passive role in our typical hearing.  But the robbers are the real lost characters.  Why have they stooped to robbing, and where is their redemption?

This is jazz, and a riff like that is perfectly in bounds under the unwritten rules of variations on a theme, but it’s not the variation Jesus took, and that translation of Leviticus 19:16 is not the one the rabbis have favored over the centuries.

The King James Version is a little closer to the plain meaning of the Hebrew, but is still kind of obscure: “neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor.”  Maybe that wasn’t obscure when it was translated 400 years ago, but I’m not sure what it means to “stand against the blood of thy neighbor.”  But the Hebrew word is indeed “stand” rather than “profit,” and there’s some relationship between that posture, and the blood of one’s neighbor.

The traditional translation from the Jewish Publication Society clarifies this.  It uses the phrase that I included as the sermon title: “neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”  This translation makes Leviticus 19:16 a commandment against indifference, and noninvolvement.  It is reaffirmed in other Jewish writings, and it’s enticing to think it could have been the inspiration for the angle Jesus takes in his parable.

One ancient rabbinical teaching stated, “if you are in a position to offer testimony on someone’s behalf you are not permitted to remain silent.” (Sipra Qedosim 4:8; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan).  And since we’re already cited the Talmud this morning, a different Talmud portion acts as further commentary on Leviticus 19:16: “If one sees someone drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers one is obligated to save him, but not at the risk of one’s life” (b. Sanh. 73a).  The Talmud wasn’t edited and completed until centuries after Jesus, but that does sound a whole lot like the beginnings of a parable I think I’ve heard before.   In Jewish tradition, from the Torah to the Talmud, indifference, standing idly by, is not acceptable.

Last week I encouraged us to identify with the half dead traveler in Jesus’ parable.  Rather than seeing ourselves only as the helper, this challenges us to find ourselves in a story in which we are not the hero.  This goes against a lot of our training of how to be a good person.

But Jesus does eventually invite his listeners to identify with the Samaritan.  After telling the parable, he asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man?”  To which the left-leaning pacifist reluctantly replies, “I suppose it was the longtime NRA member.”  To which Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”

As I hear that original parable spoken to us, especially in our antiracism work, I hear an invitation for us to enter into a dual consciousness.  We are not the hero of this story.  We too need help.  We need delivered from our half-dead state.

And we are also called to the monumental task of overcoming the sin of indifference, or, if the Torah would have its way, the crime of indifference.  “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

I fully believe that there are countless variations on this theme, and that there is no single right way to do this.  It can range from taking to the streets, to talking with young children who are picking up on this theme and have lots of great questions.

And so, my fellow-non heroes of this story: How might we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors?